Life and music is a journey for Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg says when he discovered Zulu dancing and the warrior culture in his teens, his life changed, and it helped him shape himself. File picture: Antoine de Ras/Independent Media

Johnny Clegg says when he discovered Zulu dancing and the warrior culture in his teens, his life changed, and it helped him shape himself. File picture: Antoine de Ras/Independent Media

Published Apr 29, 2017


Johnny Clegg talks to Kevin Ritchie about his world changing at the age of 15, his cancer, and his "autobiographical" final tour.

In January, Johnny Clegg came face to face with his own mortality. This week he announced his Final Journey tour to bid goodbye to his South African fans in eight weeks, followed by concerts in London and Dubai.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on April 8, 2015, four days later he was under the surgeon’s knife for a Whipple operation that excised part of his stomach, his pancreas, his duodenum and gall bladder and then, in Clegg’s words “put them back together”.

The 63-year-old music icon was lucky; only 15% of patients with pancreatic cancer qualify for the operation.

Clegg was put on a round of chemotherapy and carried on with his busy life; delighting fans across the world with his unique brand of music and story-telling.

Six weeks after the op, he was performing live at the launch for the Springbok World Cup jersey – but on a stool. He would miss only two gigs throughout chemo.

“Nobody knew. I carried on with my life. I was strong, I wasn’t suffering from the side effects. We decided not to make a fuss,” he said this week.

But in March last year, when he returned from touring the US, his doctors detected an uptick in his tumour count. No one was concerned. Then the tumour count doubled the next month. He was put on a second round of chemo for six months.

“They warned me,” Clegg says, “it’s like an atomic bomb, five different solutions pumped into my body. It’s so powerful you can only have two treatments a month.”

He was told there would be massive side effects – on his legendary energy levels, his ability to concentrate, his digestion. Except it didn’t.

On December 31, he finished his show and sent his oncologist footage of him leaping about the stage, dancing like a dervish. The oncologist messaged him saying he couldn’t believe him. And then reality struck.

He was laid low for the whole of January this year as everything he had been warned about hit him with a vengeance. When he emerged, it was time to talk, honestly and frankly with his team.

“This chemo guarantees a year of suppressing the cancer, we’ve got a window. They said to me, 'you don’t want to be in a space in two or three years where you don’t have the energy to say goodbye in a two-and-half hour show.’

“I overhead my driver telling his friends in Zulu, ‘my brother has lots of white ants trying to eat him inside and the hospital is trying to spray him with Doom.’ It’s a brilliant metaphor.”

Clegg is chipper; thinner, gaunter, but his eyes burn with passion. There’s no sign of the rigours he’s undergone. The price has been steep. Neuropathy has been one of the side effects. The chemo has been killing his nerve endings.

“I can’t feel my fingers, I have to look at the fret board to see where my fingers must go. If I press too hard the note would go sharp. I feel like I’m walking on someone else’s feet.”

So, he spoke to his oncologist and the medication was changed. The feeling is returning to his fingers and he’s trying out the old dance steps in his garden.

“It’s super concentration, but each week I’m getting stronger. I’m in the gym, I’m eating well.”

He’s looking forward to the Final Journey. He laughs at the term, “it’s kind of final, isn’t it?”

It’s a farewell to his fans and 40 years of performing but not to life, not by any means. Being diagnosed with cancer was a shock, he admits, a time to take stock.

“There’s a Zulu saying that translates as ‘this has arrived on my plate and I must eat it’. It’s life. It’s a brand new journey. Talking to Sipho (Mchunu, his long-time collaborator from Juluka) also took me out of self-obsessing ."

The Final Journey tour starts at Cape Town’s Grand West on July 1, moving to Joburg the next weekend for two shows on July 7 and 8 at Montecasino and then down to Durban’s ICC Arena at the end of July. He’s scheduled to perform at the Eventim Apollo in London on August 19 and then the Dubai Opera House in late September, with dates for Europe, the US and Australia still to be added.

“It’s going to be an autobiographical show,” Clegg explains, “it’s like flipping through a family photograph book, sharing a life, it’s not a commercial presentation.”

He’s shaped generations of South Africans with his music. The Springboks run out onto the pitch for every Test match to the sounds of Impi, his 1981 hit single, while Asimbonanga, his1988 hit, is a perennial favourite for documentaries about Nelson Mandela, but neither of them are his favourite tracks.

A case in point is The Crossing/Osiyeza, written in memory of his Savuka collaborator and long-time Zulu dance partner Dudu Ndlovhu, who was tragically gunned down while trying to mediate in a KZN taxi war.

“It’s a song about a life taken prematurely – now when I sing it, it’s ironic,” he says. Then there’s his other hit Cruel Crazy, Beautiful World, written when his son Jesse was born, or Dela, a love song about two lovers torn apart.

As he prepares for the tour dates, he’s also looking beyond to after the Final Journey. He might be stopping performing, but he won’t be lying down either, there’s his autobiography to get into shape, there are all the books he’s never had time to read and greater involvement in his other business, electronic waste recycling.

“We’ve got a factory in Midrand and branches in Pinetown and PE, we’re about to open in Cape Town. We recycle everything down to the smallest circuit board. I’m a businessman and an entrepreneur and this business fulfils the needs of my activist juices, being involved in something for the greater good of all. At the same time, there’s a chance to make a greenbuck,” he laughs.

“I’ll still keep writing music, I’ve got five new tracks I’m working on and will release slowly. I’ll probably do sound tracks for movies and documentaries. I’ll be open to small projects that take my fancy.”

Most of all though, he’ll concentrate on enjoying every day.

“In this frantic rush of modern life one is always trapped in what has to be done in the future and my future is a question mark so I kind of don’t really look at that with such intensity any more. Each day for me is a special thing.

“I had no ambitions as a young person, I just had an incredible curiosity. I never thought when I was growing up in the streets of Joburg, ducking and diving from the police with Sipho or with Charlie (Mzila, the man who taught him guitar) that a band would emerge out of this and I would have a musical career. I saw myself as an anthropologist who’d be working and getting a salary, teaching and discovering other cultures in a very secluded intellectual environment. “A lot of what happened to me was the consequence of choices. I made the right choices but not for the reasons people suspect. I never did Zulu street guitar to make a political statement I wasn’t politically conscious at the age of 14, I fell in love and it became a massive musical detective story on a hunt to discover the roots of it.

“When I discovered Zulu dancing that changed my life. At the age of 15 the whole new world of a warrior culture unfolded. The songs, the words, the movements, were a gift.

“My ambitions were to become an African, but not in the sense of an Afrikaner who is also an African. I – a white person born outside Manchester in the UK – wanted to find my own personal road and in that darkest of times I discovered an African migrant community that was so happy to have a white kid dancing in the hostels that they accelerated my urban adventure into a tribal world.”

Today, the success of that transition has become vital in how he deals with overcoming and living with cancer.

Saturday Star

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